All in the family business

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Source: El PASO INC.

PDF Article : EL Paso Inc. – All in the Family 8.24.16

Stuart Meyers met his stepson for the first time when he picked up Josh Meyers at the airport in El Paso.

Stuart Meyers, left, banters with his stepson, Josh Meyers, in the Dome Bar.

“Who is this cocky son of a bitch; that’s kind of what I thought. He had a reputation for trouble,” Stuart says, pausing, as Josh smiles. “But I saw the light behind the eyes. He’s bright,” Stuart adds, settling back in a worn leather armchair.

Josh Meyers at the Camino Real Hotel, famous for its ornate Tiffany-style dome.

It’s midday, and the silver-haired businessman is bantering with his 33-year-old stepson inside a conference room at the Camino Real Hotel. When they first met more than a decade ago, one was a young man looking for an anchor in his life. The other was a successful older businessman looking for a new project.

Stuart Meyers at the Camino Real Hotel, famous for its ornate Tiffany-style dome.

Stuart found it in the Camino Real Hotel, El Paso’s largest, most historic and most troubled hotel.

He’s announced plans to restore the 104-year-old hotel – once one of the grandest in the Southwest, but now its rooms and its reputation have deteriorated. “I’ve sort of adopted this community,” Stuart says.

The 75-year-old businessman earned most of his fortune in Florida. He’s built high-rises and acquired companies for global conglomerates. He’s behind more than 60 residential communities, valued at over $1 billion. He survived the housing crash in 2008 that tore through Florida’s housing market like a hurricane – and an actual hurricane.

But Stuart doesn’t see that as the culmination of his career. His pièce de résistance, he says, is in El Paso, where Josh recently moved and is directing the company’s investments.

“One of the first things I did when I moved here was take a tour of Downtown with a friend,” says Josh. “A lot of the buildings are vacant, so looking at El Paso with fresh eyes, it just screamed opportunity.”

The Meyers Group, based in Coral Gables, Florida, has placed a big bet on El Paso’s urban revitalization. Its investments will change the city’s skyline. In addition to restoring the Camino, the company plans to build what would be El Paso’s second tallest building – a $100-million, 22-story hotel and apartment tower on the Westside.

But to understand how Stuart Meyers and Josh Meyers came to El Paso and why they are buying into El Paso’s future, you have to go back to the 1980s. Hair and shoulders were huge, and so were the business deals. Stuart’s career in the heady world of mergers and acquisitions was ending, in the form of a leveraged buyout. He’d borrowed money to buy an optical company from a big Chicago corporation, and the deal fell apart. “Basically, I got blindsided,” he says.

Filing personal bankruptcy was Stuart’s personal crucible and marked the beginning of what would become a successful career in real estate, now playing out decades later in El Paso.

“A lot of us have to go through hard times and a lot of trauma to get to a point where we are successful,” Stuart says. “You learn that unless you are willing to take a risk, even though you don’t always win, you really can’t accomplish much in life.”

Stuart started working when he was 10, delivering newspapers. His grandfather immigrated to America from Russia in 1912, when Stuart’s father was a year old, fleeing the persecution of the Jews. “They would kill Jews for no other reason than sport,” he says.

Stuart grew up in New York, 30 miles outside of Manhattan, in a “very middle class” family. He earned degrees in finance and worked as a CPA before going into the heady world of mergers and acquisitions, buying companies for ITT, Kraft, RCA and United Brands.

After surviving bankruptcy in 1985, Stuart moved to Florida where he got a job with a well-known real estate firm, Related Companies, as their chief financial officer in the state. “The hardest part was trying a second time and going back into business,” he says.

In 1993, Stuart cofounded Cornerstone Group, and over the next 20 years he and his partners built 18,000 apartment units. When Hurricane Andrew destroyed 2,000 of the units, he spent a year rebuilding them.

Last year, Stuart sold his interest in Cornerstone and founded the Meyers Group. Since then, he and Josh have been searching for investments in El Paso. “At this stage in life, you would think I would want to retire, but just the opposite. I wanted to build something,” Stuart says.

On a recent Monday, Josh was in the Camino’s Presidential Suite, singing and playing the piano. He says songwriting is something he enjoys outside of work; he doesn’t perform professionally.

“My story is a lot different from Stuart’s,” says Josh, who never knew his biological dad. He and his sister were raised by their mother, Dannah Meyers, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Josh hit a rough patch in his teens and landed in military school at age 14. “I never had a father figure growing up, so searching for who I wanted to be was a little bit harder,” he says.

Josh’s mother met Stuart on the internet, on the Jewish dating app JDate, and they were later married. Josh says he was a 20-something who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He kicked around, working odd jobs. “It really changed when I was introduced to Stuart,” he says. “A big turning point in my life was when I saw his ambition and his focus as an entrepreneur.”

After getting a business degree, Josh went on a spiritual quest. He spent two years in Israel, studying traditional Jewish religious texts and learning Hebrew. “It really opened my eyes up to the purpose of life,” he says.

Last year, he graduated with a master’s degree in real estate development and urbanism from the University of Miami. He moved to El Paso to set up an office for the Meyers Group and now oversees the company’s real estate projects in the western U.S. as director of real estate development.

“Miami is already so saturated that it’s hard to make a difference. Real estate prices were already beyond grasp,” Josh says. “For me it was a no brainer to move out here.”

Stuart Meyers and his business partner, El Pasoan Richard Aguilar, say they intend to restore the Camino Real Hotel to its original grandeur and turn it into a four-and-a-half star hotel.

“It’s probably the most critical development project to the long term success of Downtown – maybe with exception of the ballpark,” says Paul Foster, El Paso’s billionaire businessman and executive chairman of Western Refining. “Having a convention hotel is just absolutely essential. I’ve told Mr. Meyers I would do anything I could to help him get it done.”

Foster was one of the first private investors to place a big bet on Downtown revitalization, undertaking the meticulous restoration of the historic Anson Mills Building six years ago. And he is one of a number of individuals and groups that tried to purchase the Camino Real. “We knew there were several prominent people who made a run at it, but we thought maybe the time was right,” Stuart says. “Turned out that they really did want to focus all of their business activity in Mexico, and that opened the door to us.”

For a city like El Paso, it’s all about reaching critical mass. “The more development that comes, the faster the process is of getting to that tipping point where everything becomes self-reinforcing, and we are getting closer to that,” says El Paso businessman and philanthropist Woody Hunt, executive chairman of Hunt Companies. “Clearly the Camino Real Hotel is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Joyce Wilson, former city manager and CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, agrees. “The restoration of the Camino Real is one of the most significant pieces of the Downtown redevelopment effort,” she says, “and one of the most elusive.”

El Paso was a land of pioneers who were drawn west by the vast open land and promise of riches. It was a city of firsts. In the 1930s, Conrad Hilton built his first high-rise hotel in El Paso. Elizabeth Taylor briefly lived in the hotel’s penthouse in the 1950s. In those days, El Paso’s median family income was 14 percent higher than the Texas average. But El Paso began to decline. Downtown’s grand buildings faded with time. Conrad Hilton’s hotel was eventually sold and closed. By 2000, El Paso’s median family income was 30 percent below the state average and 35 percent below the country.

It was around that time that local leaders began talking about urban renewal and Downtown revitalization. El Paso’s fortunes began to turn. From 2010 to 2015, the private sector invested an estimated $110 million in Downtown El Paso, according to the city, and that’s picked up speed this year.

“It is what I hoped would happen, and to be honest, I hoped it would have happened faster than it has,” says Foster, who believes Downtown has reached a turning point. But, he adds, “there is a long way to go.”

Stuart Meyers draws a parallel between El Paso’s economic trajectory today and urban renewal in Miami, Los Angeles and other large metropolitan centers. “El Paso is 20 years behind the times,” he says. “There is a huge movement in this country to re-urbanize the city cores. People want to live work and play in the same area.”

Stuart and his business partners are finalizing the purchase of the hotel, now owned by a company in Mexico City. The $70-million project would turn the Camino into the true convention hotel the city has wanted for years – one with more than 300 quality rooms and meeting space within walking distance of the convention center.

The individuals in El Paso who can make such investments represent a small group, and that has hampered El Paso’s growth. But that exclusive club is growing, and Stuart Meyers represents something new: outside investors taking a serious look at El Paso.

Stuart is no stranger to El Paso. He’s had a house here for 10 years, and his family connections run deep. “Stuart is a smart, honest, level-headed, experienced businessman,” says Gerald Rubin, founder and former CEO of El Paso-based Helen of Troy, a $1.3-billion enterprise that started as a wig shop.

Rubin says he first ran into Stuart on a trip to India. “I had not met him before,” Rubin says. “We had a great time with them and decided to go on another trip with both of them the next year to Africa.”

Stuart is married to Dannah Meyers, whose sisters are Dori Fenenbock, president of the El Paso Independent School District’s board of trustees, and Dawn Keim, wife of El Paso lawyer Michael Gopin. Meyers’ mother-in-law, Patricia Lama, was married to Tony Lama, founder of the popular boot brand headquartered in El Paso.

“We’re not carpetbaggers coming to make a buck and run off,” Stuart says. “We are very committed.”

Josh now lives in El Paso full time, and Stuart divides his time between his homes here and in Florida. Besides the hotel deal, Meyers and Aguilar have also proposed building a multi-story building on the parking lot in front of City Hall. “Their investment and trust in the community is huge,” Mayor Oscar Leeser says.

When I ask Stuart about the future, he laughs. “We need to get these projects off the ground and completed. That’s next. We’re thinking beyond that, but I don’t want to overload my plate.”

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